George Saunders’s latest collection of short stories, Tenth of December, was nominated for a National Book Award, and dubbed “the best book you’ll read this year” by the New York Times. In advance of his Inprint Reading Series visit this month, we talked with Saunders about his life and art.
You have a very Houston background! You were trained as a geophysical engineer and worked in the energy industry before moving into fiction. How has that experience influenced your work?
Well, four years of barely hanging in at engineering school gave me a pretty good work ethic, which is useful for a writer. If, as an engineering student, three hours a night of study gets you a D in Complex Variables (which it did), well then, you buck up and study four hours a night. If, as a writer, draft #56 is still crummy, you get going on draft #57. Both things require the same kind of tank-like energy. Secondly, and more importantly, engineering got me out of America for the first time. My first job was with a company called GSI, in Sumatra, Indonesia—and that travel opportunity remade my whole worldview.
It seems you used to be a bit of a libertarian. What happened?
Going to Asia happened. I’d been an Ayn Rand fan in college, but seeing the brutality of Asian poverty, and the rampaging rude imperialism we young Americans brought down on the local people, made me think differently about power and privilege.
Many of your stories present a darkly satirical picture of American consumerism and militarism. They’re hilarious, but also unsettling, and often bleak. Yet you seem personally very calm, happy, and well-adjusted. How do you do it?
The relation of a person’s art to his personality is pretty complicated and non-linear, I think. I feel really glad to be alive and very aware of how conditional everything is—health, and sanity, and good luck, life itself. My stories are ways of reminding myself of this conditionality. Chekhov once wrote, “Every happy man should have an unhappy man, in his closet, to remind him, by his constant tapping, that not everyone is happy, and that, sooner or later, life will show him its claws.” So in this sense, when I’m writing a story, the happy man—me—is creating his own unhappy man, in an imaginary closet, to remind myself of certain truths: good luck is conditional, not everyone is happy, my luck may change, good luck is not simply the result of virtue, etc., etc. In other words, stories can serve as little training exercises in empathy and sympathy.
You’re famous for nailing casual, vernacular American voices in your fiction. Yet two stories in your new collection feature protagonists who are given drugs that make them talk with rather fancier diction. Are you getting tired of your trademark voice and looking to branch out?
Yes, actually—or at least that was true when I was writing those stories. I think a writer is always looking for ways to extend his range. Otherwise, it’s stagnation. The drugs seemed like a good way to justify a higher register in the diction. (That sounds like something you might have heard in a paddy wagon circa 1976.)
You’re best known as a master of the short story, which a lot of people take less seriously than the novel. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because they’ve never tried writing one.
George Saunders will read at the Alley Theatre as part of the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series on Jan 27.